By definition, HPS higher education is more socially inclusive than elite higher education. The trend to HPS lifts the threshold of human agency, capability and rights (Sen 2000), provided that the higher education is suffiiciently formative to augment people’s capabilities and/or social trajectories. In a high participation-based society, the average individual should be more comfortable with knowledge and information and other tools of reflexivity, more effective and creative in communication and civil organisation, more capable in dealing with corporations and governments, and potentially more proactive, flexible and productive at work. These are important gains. But does high participation higher education provide all young persons with equal educational opportunity? Does it render emerging countries more open and mobile, more socially and economically equal? These goals are more difficult to achieve.
First, not just schooling and higher education but prior social inequalities determine whether people from low-income families, remote locations or excluded minorities improve their social circumstances. Second, not all participation in HPS is of equal value. Higher education provides a stratified structure of opportunity, from elite universities and high-status professional degrees to the much larger number of places in mass education with uncertain outcomes. Third, students from affluent families often dominate the high-value positions within higher education. Populations are socially stratified, HPS higher education is stratified, and outcomes are stratified. The objective of a policy designed to enhance equity is to modify the extent to which these forms of stratification reproduce each other, opening up the potential for upward social mobility via the HPS. Countries vary in the extent and type of stratification. HPS design makes a difference.
Family background and educational stratification
In HPS, the principal intrinsic limit to social equality of opportunity is the persistence of irreducible differences between families in economic, social and cultural resources. Policy can partly compensate for economic differences but cannot eliminate the potency of the family in cultural capital and social networks (Mountford-Zimdars and Sabbagh 2013). In a comparison of 11 European countries, Triventi (2013a) finds that ‘individuals with better educated parents have a higher probability of attaining a degree from a top institution, of a higher standard, and with better occupational returns’ (p. 499). In another four-nation study, he notes that the effects of social background on graduates’ occupational outcomes vary by country in the extent of educational expansion, the social selectivity of education, the connections between education and the labour market, and ‘the degree of institutional stratification in higher education’ (Triventi 2013b, pp. 47–48).
… stratification of higher education refers to the degree of variation in selectivity, quality/prestige and labour market value of different courses, fields of study and institutions. All else being equal, the higher is the stratification of higher education, the more important is the role of social background in the occupational attainment process (Triventi 2013b, pp. 48–49),
The HPS trend increases the pool of graduates but does not increase the number of high-value social outcomes that graduates can reach, which is determined by relations of social power and equality/inequality beyond education. Expansion exacerbates social competition in education (Arum et al. 2007, pp. 7–8), and this in turn enhances the effects of prior social inequalities. ‘All else being equal, countries with a mass higher education system may be characterised by stronger competition among graduates in the transition to the labour market and, thus, by a larger effect of social background on occupational returns’ (Triventi 2013b p. 48). The same trend to HPS, which enhances equity as inclusion, also increases the regressive effects of family background on educational and social outcomes. Thus, research on the growth of participation finds that as systems expand, class inequalities in access to elite higher education and career outcomes are not reduced (Arum et al. 2007, p. 3). Stratification effects trump the equalisation of educational quantity through growth. ‘Qualitative differentiation replaces inequalities in the quantity of the education obtained’ (Arum et al. 2007, p. 4). The national cases in Stratification in Higher Education (Shavit et al. 2007) demonstrate that as higher education expands, affluent families dominate the elite institutions. Newly participating social layers are largely confined to the sub-elite institutions where participation alone is not enough to generate strong social outcomes. The exceptions to these generalisations are when social mobility is unusually high, as in the 1960s/1970s in the US when higher education and social mobility grew together (Marginson 2016b), and/or when a determined policy effort is made by government to match growth with equalisation. Only under these circumstances is the natural tendency to greater inequality corrected.
Why does educational stratification tend to reinforce prior social inequalities, and why does expansion naturally enhance the effects of social background, or make no difference? Here, the point about the growth of HPS being driven by family aspirations for social position—for higher education as a positional good—rather than being driven by state ordering, or the needs of the economy, gains significance. HPS are populated by families that apply active agency to the contest for educational and social success, at every stage. Families with financial, social, cultural or political capitals bring those capitals to bear on education and continue to do so in the transition to work and beyond (Borgen 2015). Oxfam refers to ‘opportunity hoarding’, whereby ‘social disparities become permanent’. Privileged groups ‘take control of valuable resources and assets for their benefit’, such as ‘access to quality education’ (Oxfam 2014, p. 20). The formal stratification of opportunities on the basis of institutional hierarchies and/or financial barriers provides points of purchase for family strategies. Whenever there is a hierarchy of value, families with prior social advantages are best placed to compete for scarce places or pathways that confer the greatest positional advantages (Triventi 2013b, p. 47; Lucas 2001, 2009). Educational differentiation allows the elite status of those ‘born into privilege’ to be protected (Arum et al. 2007, p. 5). HPS are regulated by the degree and type of selectivity and closure, within a common social regime of openness and inclusion. Social competition at the key points of transition and selection—entry to higher education, entry to professions and occupations—enables a fine-grained differentiation of the population, providing scope for stratified family capacities and strategic acumen.
Nevertheless, as suggested, this institutional reproduction of prior social inequalities is punctuated by moments (more in some systems than others) when policy, educational practices and student effort broaden the potential for upward mobility via education.
Stratification between and within institutions
The mechanisms of social and educational stratification are now examined more closely, before returning to HPS and social mobility.
Some nations pursue a comprehensive approach to schooling with low stratification in terms of quality. Affluent families in the United Kingdom (UK) can invest in high-fee private schools, which are especially successful in accessing selective universities. Spending per student is three times that in state schools. The UK also maintains a state school hierarchy, where stratification has shifted from the grammar/non-grammar distinction to market competition for entry into successful comprehensive schools. Under-valuing state schools increase the value of private education (Cheung and Egerton 2007, p. 218; Dorling 2014, p. 28 and pp. 40–41). Boliver (2011, 2013) traces unequal social access to selective UK universities since the 1960s. State school applicants for leading Russell Group universities and students from black and South Asian ethnic backgrounds ‘were much less likely to receive offers of admission from Russell Group universities, in comparison with their equivalently qualified peers from private schools and the White ethnic group’ (Boliver 2013, pp. 344–345). Private school students enjoyed an advantage equivalent to ‘an additional B-grade A-level’ over state school students with the same academic achievements (p. 358).
Fields of study in higher education
In HPS in which the institutional hierarchy is relatively ‘flat’, field of study can be more determining than institution attended of graduate earnings and status. Overall, field of study is more likely than institution to be associated with earnings differentials, especially in early years after graduation, while institutional prestige is more likely to be associated with occupational status and the likelihood of moving into managerial functions (e.g. Triventi 2013b, pp. 54–57; Hu and Vargas 2015), which may translate into later earnings advantages (Roksa and Levey 2010). Wolniak et al. (2008) suggest that the STEM disciplines reinforce the effects of prior family backgrounds, while business and education degrees provide more scope to change inherited inequalities (p. 135). Borgen (2015, p. 36) notes that when a high proportion of credentials are generic without clear vocational pathways, the hierarchy of institutions is more important as a distinguishing factor in driving family positional strategies. Significantly, this finding applies to both the market-driven, mixed funded and stratified US system, and the publicly financed and ‘flatter’ Norwegian system.
Vertical and horizontal diversity
In contrast with schooling, in higher education some institutional stratification is inevitable, even in egalitarian Nordic societies. Concentrations of top researchers, and student places in high-status professional programmes, are scarce by nature. Bourdieu (1988) sees higher education systems as structured on a binary basis between selective institutions with high prestige that ration their places, and demand-driven mass institutions lacking prestige, that build volume so as to maximise their revenues and social presence. As the HPS expands, high-value student places shrink as a proportion of all places. Non-elite higher education increases in volume but average value declines, though the gap with non-participation remains. Sitting between the bifurcated elite and mass institutions are the ambiguous middle players, aspiring to the elite but lacking status and resources. States can use parcels of funding, the location of specific programmes or mission designations to expand the size of this group, for example by spreading middle-level value using the designation ‘research university’.
National HPS vary in the ‘steepness’ of vertical stratification, and the extent to which horizontal distinctions based on institutional mission also function as vertical distinctions of status and resources. Emerging mass higher education often takes a binary form, partly to protect the mission (and clientele) of the academic universities. The second sector may emphasise technical–vocational education related to manufacturing, as in Germany, Korea or Taiwan, or middle professions such as teaching and/or local employment, as in the Netherlands. System expansion is also associated with a counter-tendency to academic drift whereby growing second sectors seeks to widen their horizons by acquiring a research role. In HPS, vertical diversity tends to trump horizontal diversity: given a choice, most institutions will move beyond the bounds of a non-research mission to the extent necessary to upgrade status. The movement of erstwhile second sectors into research helped to trigger the dissolution of binary systems in Australia (1988) and the UK (1992). At present, there are unresolved pressures for upward drift in the Netherlands. On the other hand, policy, regulation and custom may retain a stable division of labour, as in Germany and the California State University (CSU) campuses. The US CSUs are modelled as a ladder to the University of California (UC). German binary diversity is more horizontal. The fachhochschulen tend to have strong labour market outcomes (Teichler 2009).
If they choose, states can manage HPS on the basis of near equality of resources and a common mission, blurring the tendency to stratification of value by distributing capacity on a broad basis. Egalitarian system design has shaped universities in the Nordic world, Belgium, the Netherlands and the German-speaking countries, all of which sustain a rough equality in degree standing and research missions, though each HPS has a moderate informal prestige hierarchy. But except for Switzerland, none have ranked universities in the world top 30 (ARWU 2015). Here, egalitarian system design conflicts with the logic of ‘World-Class Universities’ (WCUs). WCUs are concentrations designed to build research strength and status at global level, attract academic migrants and foster cross-field industry innovations (Altbach and Salmi 2011). The WCU model, normalised by global rankings, affects policy in most countries (Hazelkorn 2011; Marginson 2011). Germany’s Excellence Initiative and state-induced mergers in Denmark (Salmi 2009) were important departures from prior egalitarian HPS design. The WCU model is especially attractive to emerging countries that want to link to the world research system as soon as possible. Given the high and sustained investment required, one danger is that WCU building will be accompanied by neglect of the quality of mass higher education, for example the temptation to expand provision using MOOCs, other low-cost online distance learning, or foreign for-profit sectors. This policy danger seems chronic in high middle- and middle-income countries such as Russia, Malaysia and Kazakhstan, and also aspirant systems such as that of Vietnam, that are pressing for globally ranked universities. For example, in Russia the WCU goal is in direct tension with policy on regional capacity building.
Private sectors have more than one implication for social stratification. The US Ivy League universities are engines of social advantage. Soares (2007) finds that in 1988–2000, 64 % of the students of Tier 1 institutions were from the top 10 % American families in income (p. 167). This social composition reflects not just academic competition but high tuition and the use of supplementary entry criteria in the form of middle class cultural capital, for example applicants’ records in music, elite sports and ‘leadership’. Both modes of differentiation, finance and bio, are strategic opportunities for affluent families. The public sector UC Berkeley is equally selective in academic terms but runs a progressive tuition policy based on family income. Entry is free for 45 % of students. Only 28 % are from top 10 % of households in income terms (Soares 2007, pp. 166–167; Douglass 2013, pp. 4–5). However, it is Ivy League degrees, not UC Berkeley degrees, that provide graduate entry into elite American firms in law, financing and business services (Rivera l. 2011, 2015).
The private sector is positioned differently outside the US. Most HPS—Korea and the Philippines are partial exceptions— have few elite private institutions. National research universities are the focus of family ambition. Where there are large private sectors, as in Brazil, they provide mass education that expands freely in response to social demand without the constraint of public fiscal cost. While there are some rapidly growing public sectors, as in China, on average sectoral diversification facilitates the growth rate of HPS. However, mass private sectors carry problems of low and variable quality, especially for-profit colleges, which spend less of their revenue on teaching, and whose degrees lack potency in the labour market as the US case shows (Mettler 2014, pp. 87–110). There are also quality problems in mass public sectors in the many countries that underfund them, but there at least states can readily intervene. However, the HPS that manage quality best are those supported by a consensus on the norms of universal high-quality education that is shared by state and citizens. Formal ‘quality assurance’ cannot substitute for this.
Effects of competition
As suggested, in competitive HPS stratification tends to ‘stretch’ over time. Davies and Zarifa (2012) use Gini coefficients, Lorenz curves and other measures of inequality to compare the level of stratification in financial resources across 4-year institutions in Canada and the US over 1971–2006 (p. 143). There is a moderate-to-strong association between resource concentration and selectivity. In both nations, ‘policy-makers are urging universities to remake themselves into highly differentiated, competitive, responsive, and entrepreneurial hubs of activity’, with ‘greater competition for revenue, whether in the form of tuition-paying clients, fund-raising, or research grants, and … less bountiful and reliable government support’ (pp. 144–145). Competition for status and resources is subject to cumulative advantage: strong institutions improve their relative position over time. ‘Universities that are already older, established and wealthy enter new competitions for resources with prominent alumni networks, sizeable endowments, favourable locations, and strategic corporate ties’ (p. 145). The US HPS is ‘strikingly more stratified’ than the Canadian in financial terms, and ‘dominated by a small number of super-resourced, elite institutions that are highly distinct from the masses’ and ‘have pulled away from the pack’ (pp. 150 and 154). However, in both HPS stratification has notably increased, especially in the last decade.
Stratified structure and self-stratified agency
Although almost all families want to maximise the social position of their children, family agency is not a constant over time, or between countries, or between socio-economic status (SES) groups. Confronted by the stratified structure of provision, families respond in a differentiated fashion that reflects varied material circumstances and cultural sets. Whereas upper-middle class families may put great effort into achieving the highest possible position within the HPS, low SES and remote students are less likely to nurture high ambitions, more likely to be deterred by cost, more likely to focus on secure and predictable employment-related paths rather than diffuse intellectual formation, more likely to believe they lack the cultural capital to survive and perform at university, and less familiar with performance and application strategies. Self-stratification happens even in free Nordic HPS (Thomsen et al. 2013, p. 457 and pp. 471–474). However, all else being equal, stratified HPS with price barriers tend to evoke larger self-stratification effects, and are more likely to empty out degree completion altogether in the bottom SES layers.
‘Under-matching’ in applications
In a census-level study of all 2008 applicants to US higher education, Hoxby and Avery (2013) track the applications of ‘high-achieving’ school students, ranked in the top 4 % by SAT scores and grade point averages (p. 2). These students number 25,000–35,000 each year. In 2008, 17 % were in the bottom family income quartile (pp. 14–15). The vast majority of these low-income high achievers did not apply to a ‘selective college’Footnote 5 (i.e. higher education institution), though selective institutions charged lower tuition than many non-selective institutions, due to the provision of financial aid in selective institutions (pp. 5–6). The researchers found the application behaviour of most of the low-income high achievers differed greatly from that of their high-income counterparts. High-income high achievers followed advice to apply to a mix of highly selective and less selective institutions. Low-income high achievers opted for uniformly safe choices. Typically, they were from districts too small to support selective public high schools or a mass of fellow high achievers, and/or were unlikely to encounter a teacher, counsellor or student who had attended a selective institution.
Hoxby’s and Avery’s finding on the ‘under-matching’ of poor and remote students are replicated in Chankseliani (2013) study of rural students in Georgia. ‘Of two applicants with the same general aptitude’, the odds for an applicant from a mountainous village to apply to a least prestigious institution rather than a most prestigious one are about ‘12 times as high as the odds for an applicant from the capital’ (pp. 438–439). In the UK, Boliver (2013) finds that ‘applicants from lower class backgrounds and from state schools remained much less likely to apply to Russell Group universities than their comparably qualified counterparts from higher class backgrounds and private schools’ (p. 344). Boliver refers to widespread perceptions that prestige universities are for the privately educated white upper-middle class (p. 347). When education is seen to belong to someone else, family aspirations and agency are diminished (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010, p. 113).
A more subtle form of self-stratification is uncovered by Arum and Roksa (2014). The extent to which higher education generates vocational capacity and intellectual formation is a function of student workloads. This is especially crucial for students who are the first in their families to enter higher education. Whereas affluent students carry the cultural capital of educated households, and enjoy later advantages also in the labour market, for many first-generation students, the HPS has more value to add. However, US data indicate that study time is low relative to other countries, and falling (pp. 11–12). Arum and Roksa (2014) tracked 1600 students in 25 4-year higher education institutions. Generic academic competency tests found that after 4 years, the average student had moved from a starting 50 % to the 68 % mark, and 30 % had failed to improve by even one per cent (p. 21 and pp. 37–38). Yet these students graduated, many with good grade point averages. Arum and Roksa argue that the shift to the notion of students as consumers, whose satisfaction and adjustment are uppermost, plus official emphases on extra-curricular activities and peer networking have conditioned a partial retreat from cognitive rigour. Student assessment of teaching and curricula affects faculty standing and shapes careers, so faculty demand less. The case studies in Armstrong and Hamilton (2013) illustrate the socially differential effects of these trends. Poorer students benefit least from higher education as a position and network game, in which outcomes are maximised by those with material advantages and cultural cunning. Poor students gain the most from higher education as hard work and intellectual formation. Yet Arum and Roksa (2014) find it is the students from highly selective institutions, the most affluent, that make the largest cognitive gains (pp. 42–44).
In HPS with significant tuition barriers, the external price structure becomes internalised in the form of self-stratification, accentuating prior social differences and affecting each of access, field of study, learning and completion (Arum et al. 2007, pp. 24–25). Free or low tuition, as in most of Northwest and Central Europe, eliminates this kind of self-stratification. When tuition fees are managed on the basis of income-contingent loans as in Australia and UK, the effects in self-stratification are minimised. Students do not pay at enrolment and discharge the loan in the form of increased tax obligations only when their earnings fall above the repayment threshold. This reduces the disincentive effects of tuition, and its socio-economic bias, except for earning students who pay in the year of study (Chapman 2014; Callender 2013). This facility is not available in the US, where higher education combines the differentiation of families on the basis of institutional selectivity with differentiation by financial cost.
The consequences for American social equality are explored in a large body of research and commentary on tuition barriers. Mettler (2014) notes that whereas in 1971 the average cost of attending 4-year public higher education institution was 42 % of the income of bottom quintile families, by 2011 the figure was 114 %. For top-income quintile families, that average cost rose from 6 to 9 % of income (p. 121). In many community colleges, families meet more than half the costs (p. 122) though the qualifications are often marginal (Roksa et al. 2007; Hansen 2011). Federal PELL grants cover a declining share of tuition (PELL Institute 2015, pp. 19–20). The US GTER hovers around 90 %, but there is steep stratification inside participation (Geiger 2015). In 2013, 77 % of persons in the top family income quartile completed a degree by age 24 years, almost double the 40 % in 1970. In the bottom quartile, the graduation rate rose from 6 to 9 % between 1970 and 2013. In the second bottom quartile, it rose from 11 to 17 % (p. 31). Less than 40 % had a degree by 24 years. Others dropped out, had 2-year diplomas of low value, or gained degrees slowly. US higher education ‘stratifies people by income group rather than providing them with ladders of opportunity’ (Mettler 2014, p. 8). US financial disincentives and self-stratification are compounded by larger social inequalities, which limit higher education’s potential social effects: inherited wealth, income regulation, labour and capital markets, and state tax and transfers (Smeeding 2005). OECD data, using Gini coefficients, compare the level of income inequality before government taxes and transfers (‘market-generated’ inequality), to the level of inequality after taxes and transfers. The data for 2012 show that while in most countries government activity reduced market-generated inequality by 35–45 %, the US state did so by only 24 %, and Mexico by just 3 % (OECD 2015).
When social inequality is very high, people from low SES backgrounds invest less in education and skills. They have less capacity to meet educational costs, less prospect of entering high-value institutions, and less prospect of turning degrees into careers. Over the generations, their relative position deteriorates (OECD 2014b, p. 12). The comparison by Cingano (2014) across the OECD countries suggests that a rise in income inequality of 6 Gini points reduces the probability of individuals with parents of low educational background being in tertiary education by 4 percentage points. However, ‘inequality does not have any impact on the probability of graduating from tertiary education in the case of individuals with medium or high family background’ (pp. 24–26).